The Stigma Around Mental Illness for Christians - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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December 17, 2018

The Stigma Around Mental Illness for Christians

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5 percent—experiences mental illness in a given year. Many of these individuals turn to their church and their faith for spiritual guidance in times of emotional distress. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness in many Christian churches. The prevailing culture of silence along with misguided attitudes and erroneous expectations often cause suffering believers to feel shamed, blamed and very unsupported. 

That means a lot of good, Christ-centered people suffer alone in silence. Recent statistics from NAMI also show:

  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4 percent—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
  • 18.1 percent of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.

Suicide, depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse are just some of the mental illness-related topics many Christians find it hard to talk about. However, things are slowly changing for the better, and many Christians and clergy members are now taking mental illness much more seriously, states Billy Graham Center Executive Director, Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., in a piece for Christianity Today.

Christian faith and acute mental illness study results

Nashville-based LifeWay Research partnered with Focus on the Family and the family of a man who endured schizophrenia to conduct a large study on faith and mental illness. One of the three groups researchers surveyed in the multi-part study was comprised of 1,000 senior Protestant pastors.

As expected, based on the large numbers of Americans suffering with some form of mental illness, the pastors were quite experienced with the subject matter. The survey found:

  •       Approximately three out of four pastors said they knew at least one family member, friend, or congregant who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
  •       74 percent said they knew someone diagnosed with clinical depression.
  •       57 percent said they knew at least three people who fell into the clinical depression category.

But the researchers found a real disconnect between the pastors’ familiarity with mental illness and how proactively their churches approached the issue. While there was a genuine desire to help those who experience mental illness, there was not a proportionate amount of concrete, supportive action. The survey showed:

  •       There is a lack of training for leaders on how to recognize mental illness.
  •       Few churches have plans to assist families affected by mental illness.
  •       Few churches are staffed with a counselor skilled in mental illness.

Why is mental illness still such a taboo topic?

Although each Christian individual dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or PTSD has a unique and personal reason for not seeking support from others—in or out of church— there are some common experiences and misperceptions. Whether these come from the person, their pastor, their peers or their loved ones, they often get in the way of seeking life-changing help. Examples include:

Mental illness is a sign of weakness: “Chin up! You just need to be stronger!” is something a person dealing with depression might hear. Instead of being recognized for the legitimate, clinical condition it is, depression might be viewed as a personal flaw, character weakness, or caused by a lack of self-discipline or willpower in some cultures and congregations.

You should just surrender your mental illness to God: In “You Can’t ‘Pray Away’ a Mental Health Condition,” Fonda Bryant shares her struggle as a black woman dealing with depression.

"Present-day African-Americans feel we don’t need help mentally. All we need to do today is the same our ancestors did, which is: ‘Pray about it. Give it to God.’ But you wouldn’t tell someone with cancer, diabetes or heart problem to just pray about it or give it to God, would you? You’d hopefully say: ‘You need to see a doctor.’ But when it comes to mental health in the African-American community, there is very little compassion or empathy.”

It’s just God’s way of testing you and your faith: Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking things a believer can hear from another when dealing with mental illness or any life challenge is: “Remember, God never gives you more than you can handle.” Rev. Alba Onofrio, spiritual strategist at Soulforce, states:

“I don't believe God gives us mental illness or cancer or any other suffering as a test of our faith or a punishment for the lack thereof. And I know from the incredibly high statistics of suicide among certain marginalized communities that sometimes we are absolutely faced with more than we have tools to handle."

Your mental illness is punishment for your sins: Singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp shared her story of lifelong management of depression: “I have experienced the best and the worst of faith-based responses to my mental health. At its worst, I have experienced utter rejection from the church. Other times, I’ve been counseled to absorb my sufferings as a punishment for my sins and a call to repentance.”

You’re a disappointment to God and a bad Christian: Even mature Christians, including many contemporary faith leaders as well as the prophets, Apostles, and Jesus himself, experience sorrow, sadness and grief.

How to help

When you read NAMI’s findings that 6.9 percent of adults in the U.S., or 16 million people, had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, you realize you probably know a few people struggling in silence. Here are some ways to support both believers and non-believers.

Practice the ministry of presence: Sometimes just being with someone and giving undivided attention and witnessing is the best thing to offer. “Being present means being on call to serve,” states Jamaal Williams, Lead Pastor of Sojourn Community Church‘s Midtown campus in Louisville, Kentucky. Serving may look like extending grace and taking care of chores and errands or offering a back rub or a literal shoulder to cry on.

Don’t take their lack of interest in you personally: A depressed friend may want to avoid phone and social contact and disconnect from your previously intimate bond. “It is the average heart’s temptation to internalize situations and blame ourselves for the way someone else is responding to us. Fight this temptation by pointing your heart to your identity in Christ,” advises Williams.

Pray with or for them: While you can’t pray away mental illness, you can join with a believer in prayer to strengthen their trust and provide comfort and hope. Williams suggests using the Psalms as prayer prompters. You can also offer prayers for non-believers. Recent studies on the efficacy of remote prayers and distance healing are providing encouraging findings.

Dr. Ed Stetzer, who also holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, writes: “My challenge to the Church is that we might move beyond the whispering, the silence, the shame and the stigma. Instead, let us understand and show others that Jesus came seeking, saving and serving the lost and broken people around Him. We honor Christ when we join in His mission by doing the same.”

If you’d like to learn more about professions that enable you to serve wholeheartedly and faithfully in your life’s work or want to learn more about a biblically based, Christ-centered education at Geneva, we’d love to chat with you. For more information on how Geneva College can help you pursue your education goals, please phone us at 855-979-5563 or email web@geneva.edu.